Vartan Gregorian was born in Iran, and attended the College Armenien in Beirut, Lebanon, where he earned a degree in Armenian studies in 1955. He was awarded a scholarship for study overseas, whereupon he entered Stanford the following year. By working through the summers, he achieved a bachelor's degree in history and humanities within two years. He also completed his doctorate at Stanford. After serving in a variety of teaching and administrative posts at different institutions, Gregorian became provost of the University of Pennsylvania. He would resign from that position in 1980 to become head of the New York Public Library, which he restored from decline to cultural and financial stability during his eight-year term.
In 1984 he was awarded an honorary degree from Brown for his work at the Library, and in 1988 he was unanimously elected president of the University by the Corporation. He was formally inaugurated in April 1989. During his tenure at Brown, he instituted the President's Lecture Series, which brought prominent scholars, leaders, and authors to campus, presided over the building of a residence Quadrangle that now bears his name, taught classes, and led a capital campaign that raised well over $500 million. By the end of his presidency, Brown's endowment had grown to nearly $1 billion.
President Gregorian's tenure was also a time of increased international prominence for Brown. Applications for admission soared, and the student body grew more diverse than ever. Gregorian, who was intensely liked by students, informed the Brown community of his resignation on January 7, 1997. He left the University in September of that year to assume leadership of the Carnegie Corporation. Thayer Street Quadrangle was renamed in his honor in 1999.